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Social Security Trust Fund: Why no truth?

This column is cross-posted from Voice for Liberty in Wichita.

Regardless of one’s attitude towards the Social Security system, the refusal by liberals to admit the fraud of the system’s trust fund remains an obstacle to honest discussion of the system’s future.

Here’s an example from a prominent defender of the myth of the Social Security Trust Fund, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In an editorial from earlier this year, Sanders said those who tell the truth about the Social Security Trust Fund are a “barrage of misinformation.” He went on to describe the trust fund: “Social Security invests its surpluses, as it should, in U.S Treasury bonds, the safest interest-bearing securities in the world. These are the same bonds that wealthy investors and China and other foreign countries have purchased. The bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, which in our long history has never defaulted on its debt obligations. In other words, Social Security investments are safe.”

Closer to home, and typical of many hometown newspapers, a recent letter in the Wichita Eagle read: “There is $2.5 trillion in the trust fund as U.S. Treasury bonds. These bonds are just as real as those held by mutual funds and foreign banks.”

The debate over the nature of the trust fund is important. It strikes at the trust we should have — or not have — in government.

So: Is there $2.6 trillion in treasury bonds in the trust fund, and will the bonds be repaid?

Yes, I believe it is true. These bonds, all $2.6 trillion, will be repaid.

That simple belief, however, is an example of what economist Thomas Sowell calls “stage one” thinking. This mode of thinking looks at only the immediate effects or implications of something. It doesn’t ask the question: “And then what will happen?”

Simple as this seems — “What happens next?” — we find this to be an afterthought in politics. Writes Sowell: “Most thinking stops at stage one. In recent years, former economic advisers to presidents of the United States — from both political parties — have commented publicly on how little thinking ahead about economic consequences went into decisions made at the highest level. This is not to say that there was no thinking ahead about political consequences. Each of the presidents they served (Nixon and Clinton) was so successful politically that he was re-elected by a wider margin than the vote that first put him in office.”

In the case of the Social Security Trust Fund, the bonds it holds will be repaid. But we need to ask the “stage two” question: “What must the government do to pay back the bonds in the trust fund?” First, we must recognize that the federal agencies that received the proceeds of these bonds promptly spent the money. They didn’t spend it on income-producing assets that might generate a stream of cash flows that could be used to pay off the bonds. Instead, the money was spent on the day-to-day-operations of the federal government. This represents money that Congress and the president spent without specifically raising taxes or borrowing through the normal process.

At some time when the Social Security Administration wants to redeem the bonds, there are three choices: Raise taxes, reduce services, or create new money through the Federal Reserve System. Each robs us of wealth — either by paying more taxes, paying the same taxes for fewer services, or having the value of our money stolen through inflation.

It’s not just me who says this. Here’s a cautionary note from the Social Security Administration Performance and Accountability Report (PAR), fiscal year 2010, page 111: (OASI and DI trust funds are the two major components of Social Security that are financed by the payroll tax deduction.)

The U.S. Treasury does not set aside financial assets to cover its liabilities associated with the OASI and DI Trust Funds. The cash received from the OASI and DI Trust Funds for investment in these securities is used by the U.S. Treasury for general Government purposes. Treasury special securities provide the OASI and DI Trust Funds with authority to draw upon the U.S. Treasury to make future benefit payments or other expenditures. When the OASI and DI Trust Funds require redemption of these securities to make expenditures, the Government finances those expenditures out of accumulated cash balances, by raising taxes or other receipts, by borrowing from the public or repaying less debt, or by curtailing other expenditures. This is the same way that the Government finances all other expenditures.

There it is: “This is the same way that the Government finances all other expenditures.” There are no economically valuable assets in the trust fund. There is simply the realization that the U.S. government will tax more, provide less, or inflate the currency in order to make good on its promises. If you need any other proof, here’s another passage from the same report:

Treasury special securities are an asset to the OASI and DI Trust Funds and a liability to the U.S. Treasury. Because the OASI and DI Trust Funds and the U.S. Treasury are both part of the Government, these assets and liabilities offset each other for consolidation purposes in the U.S. Govemmentwide financial statements. For this reason, they do not represent a net asset or a net liability in the U.S. Govemmentwide financial statements.

It is as if I lend my wife $20 and accept her promise to repay. The financial position of my family has not changed.

The question is: Why do so many not want to face the facts about the Social Security Trust Fund?

The reason is that we’ve been lied to by politicians of both parties, and by politicians both conservative and liberal. Politicians like Sanders are still lying to us. The sham of the trust fund is an indication of the failure of government, and politicians of all parties do not want to admit this.

We must realize that no matter how bad the behavior of past politicians, the reality of the Social Security Trust Fund is the hand we’ve been dealt, and the basis on which decisions about the future must be made. The continuing refusal by most liberal politicians, starting with President Barack Obama, to accept this reality is harmful and is an obstacle to forging a solution.

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